Our masked crusader dispatches a group of thugs, and then someone asks, “Who are you?”
That’s usually the cue for the star to announce his name in heroic fashion.
This time, however, he’s speechless. This crime fighter isn’t sure who he is, and after spending 100-plus minutes watching “The Spirit,” we’re just as clueless.
Writer-director Frank Miller, a legend in comic-book circles but still a film neophyte, doesn’t even begin to fill in the blanks regarding Will Eisner’s ‘40s-era serial comic.
Mr. Miller’s film looks just like “Sin City,” his last screen collaboration with director Robert Rodriguez, right down to its film-noir palette. The similarities end abruptly there.
“The Spirit” follows slain cop Denny Colt (Gabriel Macht), who comes back to life as a masked avenger desperate to clean up his beloved Central City. We know he loves the city because his self-important narration tells us so. Too bad there’s little in the story to attest to the bond.
The Spirit’s biggest foe is the Octopus, played with lip-smacking glee by Samuel L. Jackson. The Octopus appears to share some of the Spirit’s powers; namely, he can withstand a barrage of physical blows without suffering serious harm.
As superpowers go, they’re more reactive than proactive. When the two slug it out early on, it’s like a warmed-over WWE match.
The story also squeezes in the Spirit’s true-blue girlfriend (Sarah Paulson), a stunner who bemoans her beau’s wandering eye, and a femme fatale named Sand Saref (Eva Mendes) who shares a romantic link to our hero.
Everyone speaks in the kind of retro dialogue that sounds smarter than it actually plays. Some tart ideas also are trotted out, such as the Octopus’ creations of genetically engineered lackeys (all played by “24’s” Louis Lombardi).
Casting Scarlett Johansson as the villain’s droll sidekick, Silken Floss, could have worked had she been given something to do besides dress up in Nazi regalia. Yes, both Silken Floss and the Octopus break out Hitler’s favorite duds during one incomprehensible sequence marking the moment when the film reaches a creative dead end.
“The Spirit” is never dull, at least when viewed as pop-culture eye candy. Mr. Miller’s compositional chops are unequaled. Every scene looks as if it were stripped from his own graphic novels, and watching the Spirit’s red tie slice through the city skyline never loses its impact.
Like Ang Lee’s misbegotten “Hulk,” “The Spirit” thinks the best way to bring comic-book characters to the screen is to mimic the look of those colorful panels. What Mr. Lee missed, and what eludes Mr. Miller with “The Spirit,” is making sure the source material’s stories also make a clean transition.
TITLE: “The Spirit”
RATING: PG-13 (Adult language, violence and partial nudity)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Frank Miller
RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes
WEB SITE: www.mycityscreams.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS